Indiana ace Tommy Sommer did not have his best stuff. The lefty was working around trouble with traffic on the bases nearly every inning in Friday’s start against Minnesota. Walks, hits, Golden Gopher baserunner after baserunner.
In the middle of it all IU redshirt senior catcher Collin Hopkins met Sommer halfway between the plate and the mound. He put his arm around the junior pitcher and whispered something in his ear. Sommer calmed down and got out of the inning and eventually his outing without serious damage.
It was a familiar sight this year. Hopkins, the college baseball journeyman, counseling young Hoosier flamethrowers. And the mentoring is proving successful by the numbers. Entering this weekend IU leads the Big Ten and ranks in the top five nationally in fewest hits allowed per nine innings, ERA and WHIP.
On Friday, Hopkins helped IU cruise to a doubleheader sweep over Minnesota as the Hoosiers moved to 17-8 on the year. They sit in third place in the Big Ten, two games behind first-place Nebraska. Hopkins’ impact has been pronounced all season long.
“There are a couple guys that you ever coach that care more about the group success than their personal success,” IU head coach Jeff Mercer said. “That’s what Collin is.”
The reason he cares starts with his journey as a player. Hopkins grew up in a pro athlete family. His dad Brad played 13 years as a left tackle for the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans NFL franchise. His older brother Brycen was a tight end with Purdue and is now in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams.
But at the age of 12, Collin choose baseball and specifically catcher because his role would be to “tell people what to do,” as Hopkins puts it. Ever since then, Hopkins has spent his time on the diamond trying to fulfill that catcher role.
“My role as the catcher on the team is to be the anchor on the team physically and emotionally,” Hopkins said. “I’m not somebody that is just going to start screaming at people but just listen and understand.”
But Hopkins’ baseball journey did not always go according to plan. He decided to stay in his home state of Tennessee to start his college career at Volunteer State Community College. There, Hopkins says he was not taking care of his body properly. This resulted in an upper body injury his sophomore season. He could not throw. He could not catch for a month. As he didn’t play for a lengthy portion of the season, most Division 1 recruiters missed Hopkins. He eventually found a home at Western Kentucky.
He didn’t fit in Bowling Green, and he looked to transfer again. Mercer talked to Hopkins’ high school coach who told Mercer that Hopkins was the best kid on and off the diamond he had ever coached. A strong game in the summer collegiate Northwoods League with Mercer watching and Hopkins was headed to Bloomington.
This journey has tested Hopkins but he has benefited in the long run. Once a struggling catcher, he is the everyday starter for one of the best teams in the Big Ten. He has the experience to understand nearly everyone in the Hoosier clubhouse.
“He can relate to everyone,” Mercer said. “He’s like a chameleon. He can go to every part of the group and be relatable.”
That includes on and off the diamond. He’s the pick-me-up for the Hoosier pitchers. On Friday it was Sommer who needed the support and some wise words.
“That’s something I really admire in those guys, being able to work with them during the game instead of just them being up there in their own headspace,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins impact continued in game two of Friday’s doubleheader where he helped John Modugno earn the victory in his first Big Ten start. Hopkins spent the game working with IU pitching coach Justin Parker to make pitch calls. An IFB in Hopkins’ ear lets Parker communicate with his catcher. But normally Hopkins makes the final decision on the pitch call.
“He’s really like a coach,” Mercer said. “He does a lot of communication strategically to call a really good game.”
The one thing Hopkins typically does not do? Hit.
He is hitting .122 on the year with six hits. But they’ve been timely. He has two home runs. His first against Purdue gave IU much-needed insurance to win the rubber match of the rivalry series. And his second might be the most memorable moment of IU’s season — a ninth-inning, walk-off homer against Illinois to break a five-game Hoosier losing streak. And Friday was Hopkins’ best day with the bat yet, reaching base five times including two doubles in the second game.
Whether or not his bat comes through, Hopkins is on the field for his leadership behind the plate and for being the savvy veteran leader to guide the pitchers. Hopkins’ mentality and beliefs are in accord with Mercer every step of the way.
“[The coaches] always preach how it is a process and journey to see how good we can be,” Hopkins said. “So we want to be the best version of ourselves and I think that’s a wonderful message to preach to young adults. I think that has really helped guide me to who I am today.”
Indiana plays Minnesota for a third and final time on Sunday. Then the team embarks in the hardest closing schedule of anyone in the Big Ten, playing all five of the other six top teams in the conference standings.
The Hoosiers might get in trouble. They might not always have their best stuff in their quest to repeat as Big Ten champions. But in the clubhouse and behind the plate, IU baseball will always have its anchor.